When, in January 2018, Nintendo dropped the announcement for Nintendo Labo on an unsuspecting public, it felt almost serendipitous. I knew immediately: this product was meant for me.
I have been a Nintendo fan my entire life. Other consoles may come and go – a PlayStation here, an Xbox there – but my heart belongs to Nintendo. I have more beloved Nintendo memories than I can count, but the most precious comes from the Christmas of 1998. I was seven years old and there under the tree was a large (for a seven year old) package. I gracelessly tore it asunder and found a thing of beauty within – my very own Nintendo 64. However, the reason why the memory sticks with me isn’t just because I was overwhelmed by the splendour of the N64 (which was a given) but because of the box.
The box was exciting. The box was potential. The box had the face of Pierce Brosnan on it who was hands down the coolest dude in the world back then (again, I was seven. And he was. And is). I remember how all of the various pieces of the console fit Tetris-like in its genius box. And I remember, even years later, still keeping the box together to house the console if I ever needed to move it – the box was part of the console, it was part of the experience.
For me, Labo reclaims the wonder of that relationship.
Labo might just be the most Nintendo thing that Nintendo has ever Nintendo’d. If you haven’t seen the swish reveal trailer (separate note: the Switch’s marketing has really been on point) then it’s basically a line of build-it-yourself cardboard toys that interact with the Switch’s core systems in a variety of inspired ways. Think the cardboard of Lego sets, or Ikea furniture for kids.
I love Lego. I loved K’nex. And, you know what, I even find a perverse cathartic thrill in a nicely constructed flat-pack plywood Ikea cupboard thank you very much. So yeah, I LOVE Nintendo Labo.
Labo is split into three very different, mostly self-explanatory, sections – Make, Play, Discover. The Make section is (brace yourselves now) where you find the instructions to build your cardboard toys, called Toy-Cons (as in “toy-controller,” not as in “Furbies are definitely not demonic hell beasts from the Nth dimension” kind of toy-con). Fortunately, the instructions are delivered with style and attitude, so unlike your Ikea one-sheet instructions of a sad man yelling a single Swedish word at a half-built folding desk, they don’t feel like a cross-cultural Millennium Prize Problem. They’re detailed, clean to look at, and easy to follow with “forward” and “back” buttons so you can move at your own pace and the ability to rotate the steps in 3D-space to help you look at, well, anything.
We went into more detail on what it feels like to actually build one of these genius contraptions with a detailed run-down of the RC car here – but, in short, they take anywhere from 15 minutes to several hours depending on the Toy-Con and, if you’re looking for the mellow joy that comes with constructing a particularly dense Lego set (with the added thrill of potential paper-cuts), then you’ll find a lot to love with the Toy-Cons’ flat-pack cardboard sheets, pop-out pieces, and little bonus doodads like string and stickers.
For the Fishing Rod game you place your Joy-Cons inside a retractable rod that’s attached via string to a mount for your Switch tablet. You then manipulate the string to find fish in the game, with the fish getting tougher to catch as you go deeper, and reel them in once they’re hooked. Admittedly, I expected this to be rather simplistic… and was left the royal fool when I was only able to catch Red Snappers, the Bad Luck Brians of video game fish.
You can design it and watch it live its best life in the Aquarium or try to catch it the Fishing game, which is just one of the neat little ways that Labo’s various parts interact
It’s a surprisingly nuanced game that invites out-of-the-box (geddit?) thinking to get ahead, like hooking a smaller fish near the surface to attract the bigger beasts further down. Sharks, manta rays, swordfish, anglerfish, there’s a great variety of beasties to snag and a lovely presentation to boot that, for once, didn’t trigger my normally crippling thalassophobia. So that was nice. Only note is that, of all the kits, this is one most likely to get broken – it’s very sturdy, but it’s not hard to see how a few extended play sessions may wear the reel out.
Any fish that you catch get housed in the Aquarium, a separate game that you play using the… piano! Obviously. Using the scanner slot in the top of the piano you can insert pieces of paper that the Joy-Con scans and turns into a 3D fish! If that isn’t the highpoint of human achievement to date then I don’t want to know what is. You can then design it and watch it live its best life in the Aquarium or try to catch it the Fishing game, which is just one of the neat little ways that Labo’s various parts interact.
The piano is seriously impressive, and not just because it actually works. There’s a full scale of keys with a little lever at the side to adjust for lower and higher notes giving you, in effect, the capability of a full sized piano. You can play it as normal if you want, though why you would ever do that when you can use little equipable nodes to turn it into a cat piano is beyond me.
The piano is also used to play with the Studio which takes it all up a notch, allowing you to use one of the Joy-Cons as a conductor’s wand and to record and edit snippets of music into something longer-form. For someone with the musical ability of a leg cramp at midnight, this all went a little over my head, but I can’t wait to see what other people make.
The remaining two toys from the launch-day Variety Pack are the Motorbike and the House. The Motorbike takes a little getting used to but, once you do, feels entirely natural. You slot the Joy-Cons into the handlebars of the cardboard mount which you twist to accelerate and steer to move. The twisting of the accelerator feels suitably meaty and it’s the best example of how the tactile experience of playing with the cardboard can create a unique (and better) video game experience.
The Toy House is somewhere between Mario Party and a next-gen Tamagotchi. It is, therefore, incredibly exciting
After one dodgy lap where I didn’t quite nail the turn mechanics I quickly got into it and won a Grand Prix. Thanks, Mario Kart! It’s also possible to use Labo’s scanner ability through the Joy-Con to turn scans (of say, your significant other’s face) into racetracks. Which is something I will be doing. A lot.
The Toy House is somewhere between Mario Party and a next-gen Tamagotchi. It is, therefore, incredibly exciting. To play, you fit your Joy-Cons and Switch tablet into their respective slots and then interact with a little beastie (who we’ll call Glenda) in its house. It’s a cute dude that wants to eat, sleep, and play all day – so on top of being obnoxiously cute Glenda is also a pretty solid life coach. There are three slots in the house where you can place any combination of different cardboard nodes like a button, lever, and crank. Where you place which node, and which combination you use, governs what game or mode you play, in what quickly becomes an innovative and addictive gameplay mechanic.
For example, if you just insert the button a light switch appears in Glenda’s house to alternate between night and day. Insert the lever alongside a crank and you’ll activate the microwave which you use to cook food for Glenda using ingredients earned through various mini-games triggered via different combinations of the nodes. I still haven’t come close to seeing everything and it’s not hard to see how new buttons can be made to keep the game fresh.
You’re a robot. In a city. Destroy everything
Alongside the Variety Pack, Labo will also separately launch with the Robot Kit, and it’s here that you can start to see the scale of Nintendo’s vision and ambition with their burgeoning cardboard empire. The Robot Kit is just cool, there’s no better word for it, like a Gundam suit or Cubix (lol, remember Cubix?) in your living room. You insert one Joy-Con into the head-visor which tracks your movement, and the other into the chunky backpack which tracks your stomps and punches attached to hand and foot straps; this is a graceless full-body experience in the best way possible.
The game itself is a high score-athon. You’re a robot. In a city. Destroy everything. It’s a simple and satisfying as that. You move by leaning to change direction and stomping to walk, then it’s just a case of punching every goddamn thing that has the audacity to exist for 5 minutes and watching those beautiful points stack up. The tracking is pretty much spot on and as odd as it initially feels to stomp on the spot like a giant toddler it soon starts to make sense. I was quickly able to move pretty naturally between the robot’s car form (by crouching in an “I need the toilet” sort of way) and flying by holding my arms out to the side like some mecha-Jesus wannabe.
The more times you play, and the more points you score, the more abilities you unlock (to more efficiently raze the city to the ground) and the more the world opens up. There’s also a PvP mode where two people can sling on the kits and duke it out which is something I NEED to do at some point.
The final prong in Labo’s trifecta of offerings is called Discover and it’s here that things get very interesting. In a similar vein to other great build-it-yourself games of recent years – from Little Big Planet to Super Mario Maker to Dreams if it ever actually happens – Labo boasts the basic tools and frameworks to let you build pretty much anything you want.
“Discover” is effectively a pared-back, basic coding interface, allowing you to create inputs and outputs and draw connections between them. At its most basic this allows you to do stuff like code certain sound effects to specific buttons on the Joy-Con. Or, alternatively, coding an “applause” sound to trigger every time the Joy-Con’s infrared sensor detects movement, so you could do something like attach your Joy-Con to scan your doorway and be greeted with rapturous cheers every time you enter the room.
You can also use the white stickers and tape that the Labo kits use to act as scan points to set and code instructions. For example, the Variety Kit comes with a cardboard dude (christened McCardboard) with a Joy-Con slot in its back. Through Discover, you can program the Joy-Con in McCardboard’s back to vibrate if the infrared scanner from the other Joy-Con was ever “shot” at the sticker on his front. You can then program a cheering and/or a groaning sound effect to play when McCardboard’s Joy-Con detects downwards movement (e.g. from making McCardboard fall by vibrating). Consequently, just through a few fairly simple input/output commands all coded in Discover, you can make a cute little “Shooting Gallery”-esque game.
If it wasn’t clear from this Dune-like write-up – I’m seriously impressed by Nintendo Labo. And it’s not just because the cardboard kits themselves are incredibly fun (which they are), or because of the myriad ways all of Labo’s constituent parts interconnect and support each other, but more because it is so much bigger than the sum of its parts. Taken purely on the surface value of its hardware and software, Labo is great fun, but the full experience, the freedom of creative thought and expression it offers, is a welcome breath of very fresh air in an industry that often seems so close to stagnating entirely.
I always knew that Labo was for me. But whether you’re looking for a few fun games to play with friends or you are/ have a kid keen for a basic grounding in creation and coding, it’s pretty clear that Labo is for everyone else too.